A personal account of mental health and the importance of place

 

Almost exactly two years ago I launched #lightbrightyeg .

The project was simple: using a $1000 microgrant from the Edmonton Awesome Foundation, I purchased 3 light therapy lamps to be placed in the Stanley Milner Public Library in downtown Edmonton.

The idea came to me when I was looking at purchasing a light therapy lamp for myself. I had spent two winters in Edmonton and I noticed that my mental health tended to worsen over the winter season. My doctor indicated that I might be experiencing seasonal affective disorder and suggested I look at light therapy lamps, as they are a common form of treatment.

When looking to purchase a light therapy lamp, I found that the high quality lamps were quite expensive and that many people may not be able to afford to purchase one – and I had a problem with that. At the time, I was working as a mental health occupational therapist and was aware of the complex factors that are involved in the mental health system – poverty being one of them. I recognized that some people who might need access to these lamps the most may not be able to afford it, and so #lightbrightyeg was my attempt at a solution.

#lightbrightyeg also sparked my interest in how public spaces can be used to address mental health. Two years later, I’ve recently started my PhD in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, where I am studying how urban design influences mental health. My interest in this topic isn’t just the driven by curiousity; it’s also informed by my personal experiences.

The truth is that I don’t just get low mood in the winter due to seasonal affective disorder. Seasonal affective disorder only made a pre-existing issue worse.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve experienced depression.

It came to a head for me about 5 years ago when I was doing my master’s degree in Toronto. I was living in a dungeon-like basement suite that was bereft of natural light, which I think only exacerbated my symptoms. I spent a lot of time sleeping. My inner monologue was dominated with negative thinking. I just felt horrible, almost all the time. This experience wasn’t particularly new for me, but I was in a new place and didn’t have too much social support which made things just that much worse. For the first time, I was contemplating getting some real help. At occupational therapy school, we had been talking about mental health, so that dialogue in itself created space for me to explore the topic for myself. It was pretty apparent that I was fighting my own battle with stigma – and I was someone who was aiming to work in the field of mental health. We’re all affected by it.

Things got pretty bad and I realized I needed to finally talk to someone about it and booked an appointment with the student counselling centre. And I’m happy I did (no pun intended). Having someone to talk to was invaluable – and the fact that it was free definitely helped. I don’t know that I could afford to pay someone $170 a session for therapy while on a student budget. This is a topic for another post, but we need to do something about this. Therapy should be a right, not a privilege.

And so it is, in part, from this perspective of lived experience that I am inspired to obtain a better understanding of how it is that place and space impacts the way we feel. It appears that I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to it.

When you experience extended periods of feeling unwell, you also develop an acute sense for things that make you feel happy. This can take on different forms for different people.

For me, in some cases, it was the experience of being in particular places. I’ve found that positive experiences of place can punctuate an otherwise drab existence with moments of joy. When I was experiencing dark times in Toronto, it was a bench in Bellevue Square Park in Kensington Market. This old bench on a small patch of green space in downtown Toronto allowed me to be around people without necessarily needing to connect with them. I’d pop in my headphones and just people watch. And when I did feel ready to connect, people were all around me in a bustling and vibrant environment. It was truly a great place. That park always met we where I was at.

I think this is an important aspect of places – whether we are aware of it or not, we develop personal relationships with them. Having moved to Waterloo for school, I’m now in pretty close proximity to Toronto and have been able to visit my old stomping grounds regularly. On occasion, I’ll walk through Kensington Market, and each time I pass that bench it feels as though I’m greeting an old friend.

It’s reasons like this that I’m passionate about learning about how places and spaces can promote wellness. There’s more to them than the concrete that’s poured and the trees planted. Places can carry an emotional valence. Understanding these qualities will be important as we build our ever changing cities. We also need to understand how places and spaces can create stress and contribute to mental illness.

With my clinical background in mental health, I’m more than aware that urban design is just one of many facets in this complex issue. We need to acknowledge the various social determinants of health that are involved. We need more robust mental health resources for the public. We need a society that is OK with talking about it.

I’ll be honest. I wasn’t sure about sharing this, but it’s #BellLetsTalk day… and I thought I’d do just that. Talk about it. Having worked in mental health, I’m all too familiar with the detrimental impact of stigma. I figured it would be appropriate for me to walk the walk and do my part in trying to help dispel the stigma that surrounds mental illness through sharing my own story. I’m by no means “cured”. I still have my challenges with depression. But, I can say one thing. There has been a tangible shift for me in my experience with depression. I’m finding that as time passes and we move forward as a society, that more people are talking about it and sharing their own stories. This developing culture of openness lessens the burden immensely.

A good friend once shared a quote with me that has stuck with me since:

Joy shared is joy increased and pain shared is pain decreased.

I wholeheartedly believe this. So, please, continue to share your joy as well as your pain, and we’ll all be better off for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(photo credit : https://www.flickr.com/photos/rickharris/20547578459)

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6 thoughts on “A personal account of mental health and the importance of place

  1. Wonderful post, especially re effect of lighting on people. More on the impact of light in cities (quality, pollution, trespass) would be most welcome.

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